Talking Tactics: Day 1

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

With all eyes set on Portland’s Providence Park for the unfortunately late kick-off of Philadelphia Union’s season (10:30 pm ET on CSN), PSP’s Eli Pearlman-Storch and Adam Cann have been going back and forth on the tactical options available to the Union their newly revamped, deeper-than-ever roster. Here is the first piece of their conversation:

Eli Pearlman-Storch: The whole offseason has been about 4-3-3. John Hackworth hasn’t missed a chance to mention it and now that the Union have a roster with many players who are capable of fitting the system, it’s going to happen, right? Well, there’s Conor Casey and Jack McInerney to fit in. Hmmm. And then there’s Hackworth’s generally conservative tactical habits that makes a 4-3-3 look like a 4-2-3-1.

So maybe it’s not the Barcelona style 4-3-3 we were preparing for, but then again, it never really was going to play out that way. Where do you want to start? Work our way forward from the MacBlake situation? Or backwards from Caseinerney?

Adam Cann: Let’s start big. I think the formation numbers matter less offensively than they do defensively. Where do the Union want to pressure the ball on defense? The clear next step for a team like the Union is figuring out team D and that means figuring out team pressure starting with the strikers. The clubs that have taken big steps forward in recent years are doing smart, team pressure all over the pitch, often with a strong, mobile, and technically cultured base on a midfield triangle. Lo and behold, the Union have just such a player in Maurice Edu. So assuming Jack McInerney is still the centerpiece of the attack, the Union should be looking to pressure high up the pitch and convert turnovers into counters. The best formation for the kind of pressure we are talking about here is the 4-1-4-1. The wingers drop a bit deeper to keep the opposition fullbacks out of play and contain the width of the attacking side. The midfielders can press high up the pitch, safe in the knowledge that Mr. Edu (or Mr. Carroll, which is an issue we can address later) will be there to sweep up anything that gets through the net.

A couple issues I see here: 

  1. This lineup keeps Casey or Mac off the pitch.
  2. The Union wingers have not, traditionally, been disciplined enough to consistently play team defense.
  3. Any and all substitutions are likely to change the formation drastically, possibly meaning a loss of shape and consistency (a problem the Union have struggled with in past seasons).

Do you see the same issues? Different ones? Or do you think a double-pivot is still the way to go? Let’s look at the overall tactics for a hot sec before we move down to individual position battles.

Eli: Let me outline one massive concern I have. Maurice Edu is a holding midfielder. That much everyone knows. Brian Carroll is a defensive midfielder. A complete known commodity. Here comes the issue.

Vincent Nogueira is not an attacking central midfielder. Last season for Sochaux, in 29 appearances (25 starts), Nogueira racked up 2 goals and 2 assists. The year before, in 28 appearances (23 starts), he had 2 goals and 0 assists.

Nogueira is a smart, talented, quality midfielder. But he is not the type of player who sits behind the striker and dishes out the assists. Think Will Johnson (prior to his breakout offensive season with Portland), not Diego Valeri.

So, of the three big players in central midfield, all are guys who work, by and large, in their own half of the field (or at least right around the center circle). Regardless of which player in this trio pushes higher up the field to both help the attack and provide the pressure you describe, that player will be out of his element.

Last year, Jack McInerney’s game improved when it came to dropping into the midfield to receive the ball. That improvement came purely out of necessity. Will it be any different in 2014 given the types of players who are likely to line up in the center of the park?

Adam: That’s a good question to ask as we turn to a discussion of the wing players. Maidana offers a different type of threat from a wide position: He can create, he can hold possession, and he tends to care more about keeping the ball than about being a flat track bully. I don’t think I need to tell you that “different type of threat” understates how much of a change that will be for the Union. With an outlet like that, the team doesn’t have to exist in a constant state of full-on counterattack. The central midfielders can build play, push the ball wide, move up, and join in on a sustained attack. While Nogueira is not an attacking midfielder, getting him higher up the pitch with a strong possession game will let him move defenses around and provide lanes for Edu to get into the box. I think this is the one aspect of Edu’s game that the Union absolutely need to translate well in MLS: Getting into the box. For that to have an opportunity to happen, however, the team (ahem, Fabinho) will need to put an emphasis on possession and limiting early crosses to absolutely necessary situations.

Back to the wings: 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 (or anything else), Philly is going to use Maidana and a combo of players who have traditionally been less than disciplined defensively. Can Hackworth and the staff teach team defense? Is that something they should be emphasizing to this group of guys?

Eli: Honestly, I didn’t have faith in the coaching staff of 2013 to make the necessary adjustments and teach the necessary strategy. After all, Sebastien Le Toux forgot his assignment on the right hand touchline so badly, that he lost his job out there, despite almost leading the league in assists.

But 2014 is a new year, and in Mike Sorber the Union have a savvy mind, both when it comes to his coaching acumen, as well as his own playing career. Hopefully he can bring the wherewithal to remind his wingers (and make it stick) that defending and positioning yourself to attack are largely the same thing.

Both Le Toux and Danny Cruz are at their best bursting onto balls played in front of them. Such balls become available when they are active in midfield, both hustling opponents off the ball and participating in their own side’s build up. Bursting forth out of the jumbled midfield, both can get a head of speed going and race past their fullback.

Just to reiterate. Working with teammates in midfield both defensively and in possession leads to the types of jail break balls on which both players strive. However, in the latter half of the season, whether it was due to tiredness or a lack of tactics, both players failed to complete their midfield responsibilities. Obviously this was detrimental to their team defensively, but also, and almost equally importantly, neither player put himself in good positions to attack.

Standing alongside their fullback, Le Toux and Cruz were reduced to trying to either play with their back to goal, or requiring a guileful dribbling maneuver to create space. Any viewer of the Union knows that neither player can count either of those skills as a strength.

This issue alone is almost enough to dispense with the 4-3-3 nomenclature entirely. In order for the Union’s wingers to become prolific contributors to the attack, they must first do their defensive work, and offer their backline a safe second outlet before any bulldozing forward runs can be contemplated.

Assume that they can pull it off. How does it effect Jack McInerney to have less than balanced wing play happening on either side of him? How can he (or whoever is occupying the center forward channel) make themselves available in this uneven setup?

Eli and Adam will be talking tactics throughout the week, leading up to the opener. If you have any specific questions for them to incorporate in their discussion, please leave them in the comment section below.


  1. Jeremy Lane says:

    Well, it’s nice to see Eli hasn’t been carried away with optimism by the offseason. 😉

  2. The rosters had to be finalized already right? Where are the names that were cut?

  3. I have a better idea what the Union were doing against Toronto after watching Werder Bremen pretty much do the same thing against HSV during the Nordderby. After watching them do more or less the same thing the Union were doing, Bombing up the wings, overlapping runs crossing into the box ect. I am not sure we have the personnel to pull it off.

    We have the personnel to pull off something but I’m not sure that.

    But that game day strategy may be null and void once Casey comes back anyway.

  4. What about no Cruz or LeToux. Ribeiro? Fernandez?

    Or, given their personnel, a 4-4-2? But that’s not going to happen.

  5. Just because Nogueira has not been an attacking midfielder for Sochaux does not mean he isn’t capable of being one in MLS. Granted, I’ve only seen him play a total of about 120 minutes, but he certainly seems to possess the technical ability, creativity, vision and willingness to break defenders down that we have yet to see in this club. Actually, we have seen that combination once…in Adu, but Nogueira has one key factor Adu lacked…fitness and a high work rate.
    I anticipate some unbalanced attacks with respect to right/left with the left flank staying in position a bit more, lone forward pushing towards the left and right winger moving higher up the pitch. That leaves Williams room to hit the flanks and Edu drift towards the right midfield more.
    The biggest question I want to know from Hackworth is whether he would rather win games by a score of 4-3 or 1-0. The answer to that question will tell us what to expect out of this team. For pure entertainment purposes, I hope that he’d rather see 4-3 games, but somehow I doubt it!

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      Nogueira does have a nice range of skills, but my point is just that he is not the de facto “CAM” that a lot of people have been looking for. If he slides into that roll, it will not be a perfect fit and may take some time. He’s certainly a very good player, it just remains to be seen how he is used and how he adapts.

      • We have a CAM his name is Maidana and he wears the #10. The confusion may be that you all are expecting our wingers in this formation to be Maidana and Cruz/Letoux. The wingers in this formation are Fab and Sheanon. That is why Fab has started all preseason. They will be wingbacks expected to own the flanks. The “wingers” Maidana and Letoux will be looking to cut inside all day. That also explains why Carrol is in the lineup. His defensive coverage will be more necessary than ever with the outside backs further up the pitch.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Where do Noguiera and Edu fit in?

      • I know Eli has said this a couple times but it bears repeating. I think a good place to look as an example of what Noguiera and Edu might be is Johnson and Chara in Portland last season

  6. PainDon'tHurt says:

    I appreciate the moves that the Union front office made this offseason, especially in the midfield. I really, really do. However, right now I interpret the message as, “We picked up three high-quality midfielders for your viewing pleasure. We are going to give them every available opportunity to work alongside our less than stellar midfield lineup from last season.”

    Please, Mr. Hackworth….no more Cruz. Not even as a sub. I can’t watch him flop around and lose possession anymore. I just can’t.

    And Brian Carroll seems like he should be the odd man out, but……..he doesn’t appear to be. Not at all.

    I guess we’ll see how everything shakes out on Saturday.

    • Agree on Carroll. But if you drop LeToux and play Maidana on the right and Noguiera on the left with Casey and Mac up top, we’ll have a nice balanced setup. I still don’t believe Hackworth can coach offensive or defensive tactics, so we’ll have to win despite him.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Carroll’s inclusion will show us if Hackworth can progress this club. If Carroll is an automatic selection, we will be in store for more of the same. It’s as simple as that. Edu is a far better play. He has quality as a DM but can also factor, heavily, on the offensive side of the pitch. Playing them both leaves us with a jumbled mess in the middle, given that Edu will have to fall back to provide Carroll with a lateral outlet. We have quite a bit of talent this year. Our success will come out of our midfield. A cohesive group, that can link our side, will prove us to be a very formidable opponent. We just need the right XI and Carroll doesn’t fit. It’s time to move this club forward!

      • PainDon'tHurt says:

        That can work. I still want LeToux to fit in somewhere in the starting lineup, but I know that is my good ol’ sentimentality kicking in.

        (Response to D’s comment)

  7. Can’t believe I’m about to say this: If you replace Carroll with Keon, this might work…like you guys said above, in a three man midfield, we need A number #10.
    Or, since our #10 plays on the flank, we’d need a Sweinstager type to pass from deep. Keons all I can think of right now for that role (certainly no Carroll).
    Or we look at Liverpool recently as they had the same question: How do you put SaS on the field and Gerrard and have defensive cover? 4-4-2…

    • But if a pairing w/ Edu and Carroll, BC has to press high up the field and Edu has to be the deep-lying playmaker.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Carroll pressing high is worthless. He provides zero distribution. A central midfield of Edu and Noguiera (props to a guy that has every vowel in his name) would have potential.

      • This is my preferred pairing…
        But if it has to be BC and Mo, I’d play BC high up so that he can pressure defensively higher and Mo can QB from the build-up into Maidana and Nog. Yeah, Carroll is not an attacker, but it wouldn’t be his role and Mo would provide a deep outlet. The #6 is now best deployed higher up the field (see LFC, Bayern, USMNT w/ MB and JJ, etc.)
        again, Carroll would be on my bench, but…

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